Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. Raya and the Last Dragon

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Raya and the Last Dragon

Year: 2021

Budget:  $100 million

Box office: $132.8 million 1

Plot: The prosperous land of Kumandra is ravaged by the Druun, evil spirits that attack and petrify the land’s people and dragons. Sisu, the last dragon, concentrates her magic into a gem and banishes the Druun, reviving Kumandra’s people but not the dragons. A power struggle for the gem divides Kumandra’s people into five tribes, based on their placement along a giant, dragon-shaped river: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail.

Five hundred years later, Chief Benja of the Heart tribe trains his daughter, Raya, until she finally becomes a guardian of the gem. Firmly believing that the tribes can be united once again, Benja decides to hold a feast for the leadership of all five tribes. During the feast, Raya befriends Namaari, the daughter of Chief Virana of the Fang tribe, who gives Raya a dragon pendant as a gift. Trusting her, Raya shows Namaari the location of the gem but Namaari betrays Raya as part of a plot to help Fang steal it. Alerted to the attack, Benja and the other tribes arrive at the scene and start fighting over the gem, which gets broken in the scuffle. As each tribe steals a piece of the gem, the reawakened Druun ravage Heart and its people. A wounded Chief Benja, discovering that the Druun are weak against water, throws Raya into a river before getting petrified himself.

For the next six years, Raya treks across Kumandra to find Sisu in order to help her recover the four missing pieces. After reaching a shipwreck in Tail, Raya finally manages to summon Sisu, who admits that she did not create the gem, but only used it on behalf of her four siblings and can gain a different sibling’s power by touching each piece.

They recover the second piece from a booby-trapped Tail temple, granting Sisu shapeshifting powers, and encounter a hostile Namaari and her tribesmen who are after Raya’s stolen dragon scroll depicting Sisu. Escaping the temple, they escape on the boat of young restauranteur Boun, who lost his family to the Druun. Despite Boun’s friendliness, Raya does not fully trust him, and insists that Sisu stay in human form.

The group arrives at Talon to claim the third gem piece, during which Raya encounters a toddler-age con artist named Noi and her trio of monkey-like companions, the Ongis, who adopted her after the Druun petrified her mother. After a chase, Raya recruits Noi and the Ongis while Sisu encounters Talon’s chieftess, who offers her to the Druun for the other gem pieces. Raya rescues Sisu and reclaims the third piece, allowing Sisu to spew out fog which they use to escape.

The group then arrives at Spine, where they meet Tong, a fearsome warrior and the village’s sole survivor. Namaari arrives and Raya holds her off in a fight so the others can escape, but before Namaari is able to defeat her, Sisu turns back into a dragon and saves Raya. Realizing that Sisu is a dragon, the companions agree to help Raya, and Tong hands over Spine’s gem piece, allowing Sisu to control rain.

As the group get closer to Fang, Sisu suggests allying with Namaari rather than stealing the final piece. When Raya refuses, Sisu takes her back to the remains of Heart and tells of how her siblings’ trust in her was what really empowered her to save Kumandra. Raya relents and decides to give Namaari the dragon pendant as a peace offering. Raya and Sisu meet privately with Namaari, but Namaari, torn by her responsibility to save Fang’s reputation and her wish to help defeat the Druun, threatens to shoot them with a crossbow upon seeing the gem pieces. Sisu tries to calm Namaari down but is fatally shot when Raya lashes her sword on Namaari’s crossbow.

Sisu’s death causes all the water to disappear from Fang’s protective canal, allowing the Druun to overrun the realm. Raya enters to confront Namaari, whom she finds to be mourning over the petrification of her mother. The two fight while Raya’s companions rescue the people of Fang using the gem pieces. Raya bests Namaari and prepares to kill her, but stops upon realizing her own fault in Sisu’s death due to her inability to trust others and heads off with Namaari to aid the group instead. As the Druun gain on Raya’s group, Raya, remembering how trust allowed Sisu to save the world beforehand, urges the others to unite and reassemble the gem, showing her faith towards Namaari by handing her piece and allowing the Druun to take her. The rest follow suit, with Namaari assembling the gem before the Druun petrify her as well.

With the gem reassembled and everybody trusting each other, the Druun are vanquished and all of their victims revive. The other dragons revive Sisu while everyone reunites with their lost loved ones, including Raya and Benja. The dragons and the tribes gather at Heart to celebrate and finally reunite as Kumandra.

In October 2018, Deadline reported that Adele Lim was hired to retouch the script, and that Osnat Shurer had been hired to produce the movie. On August 24, 2019, Disney officially announced the film during their D23 Expo Walt Disney Animation Studios’ presentation panel. In August 2020, it was announced that Don Hall (director of Winnie the Pooh and Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada, the latter who had joined Disney Animation in 2019, were now taking over the reins as directors, with Briggs remaining as co-director and John Ripa joining himOn August 2, 2019, during the D23 Expo, Awkwafina and Cassie Steele were announced to have been cast in the film as Sisu and Raya, respectively.On August 27, 2020, it was revealed that the role of Raya had been recast, with Kelly Marie Tran replacing Steele. The recasting was due to creative shifts in the character and story.
On the eve of the film’s release in March 2021, Hall finally revealed the exact reason for why the production team had decided to recast the lead role: Raya was originally a “stoic loner,” but then the team began to infuse her with elements of “levity” and “swagger” similar to the character of Star-Lord in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Tran was selected for her “lightness and buoyancy, but also badassery.”


Kelly Marie Tran as Raya. She came to global prominence for her role as Rose Tico in the Star Wars sequel trilogy films The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. She has also been cast as Dawn in the film The Croods: A New Age, replacing Kat Dennings. Awkwafina as Sisu. She appeared in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and Jumanji: The Next Level. She played Billi Wang in The Farewell, for which she received critical acclaim and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe in any lead actress film category. 

Izaac Wang as Boun. After appearing in the TV Land series Teachers, Wang played Soren in Good Boys and in Think Like a Dog. He will be seen in the upcoming film Clifford the Big Red Dog and in the upcoming series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. Gemma Chan as Namaari. 2 She appeared in many television programs, including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Fresh Meat, Bedlam and True Love. She appeared in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Transformers: The Last Knight, Humans, Crazy Rich Asians, Mary Queen of Scots, and Captain Marvel. Chan will headline the upcoming Marvel Studios film Eternals as Sersi.

Daniel Dae Kim as Chief Benja. He is known for his roles as Jin-Soo Kwon in Lost, Chin Ho Kelly in Hawaii Five-0, Gavin Park in Angel, and Johnny Gat in the Saints Row series of video games. He also runs a production company, 3AD, which is currently producing the television series The Good Doctor. He portrayed Ben Daimio in the superhero film Hellboy. He also had roles in Spider-Man 2, Crash, The Jackal, For Love of the Game, Hulk and The Cave. Benedict Wong as Tong. Wong is known for portraying Kublai Khan in Marco Polo and Bruce Ng in The Martian. Wong portrays the character of Wong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. He has appeared in Grow Your Own, Prometheus, and Annihilation. He performed tgevoice of the Skeksis general skekVar in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. He also appeared as the voice of Bull in Lady and the Tramp.

Sandra Oh as Virana. She is best known for her starring roles as Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy and Eve Polastri in Killing Eve. On television, she was noted for her role as Rita Wu on  Arliss. Her later television credits include Judging Amy and American Crime, as well as voice roles on American Dad!, American Dragon: Jake Long, The Proud Family, Phineas and Ferb, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,and  Invincible. Oh is known for Bean, Last Night, The Princess Diaries, Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity, Under the Tuscan Sun, Sideways, Wilby Wonderful, Hard Candy, Rabbit Hole, Tammy, Catfight, and Meditation Park, as well as voice roles in Mulan II and Over the Moon. Thalia Tran as Little Noi. She is best known for her roles as Charlotte Perry in Council of Dads and Raina in Little. She has also appeared in Tiny Feminists, Brat TV’s Hotel Du Loone, and Disney Channel’s Sydney to the Max.

Lucille Soong as Dang Hu. She is best known for her main role as Grandma Huang in the television series Fresh Off the Boat. In 1969, she starred in the soap opera Coronation Street. She had roles in films The Joy Luck Club, The Corruptor, Freaky Friday, Nora’s Hair Salon, Nora’s Hair Salon 2: A Cut Above, and Nine Dead. Dichen Lachman as General Atitaya. She earned recognition starring as Katya Kinski in Neighbours and as Sierra in Dollhouse. She appeared in other television shows Being Human, Last Resort, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Altered Carbon, and Animal Kingdom. She has appeared in the films Aquamarine, Bled, Lust for Love, Too Late, and Bad Therapy.

Where in the world is Alan Tudyk?: Alan plays Tuk Tuk.

Music: James Newton Howard composed the score for Raya and the Last Dragon. The film marks the fourth time he has scored an animated film by Walt Disney Animation Studios, having previously composed for Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet. The score was released on February 26, 2021. Jhené Aiko wrote and performed a song for the end-credits, titled “Lead the Way”.
On March 2, 2021, Disney Studios Philippines announced that Filipina singer KZ Tandingan would be singing Disney’s first-ever Filipino-language song, titled “Gabay”, which means “guide” in English. The track, the Filipino version of “Lead the Way,” would be part of the film’s soundtrack.

Critical Reception:Writing for IndieWire, Kate Erbland gave the film a grade of B+ and said, “As the Disney princess brand has continued to evolve, from the introduction of newbies like Moana to the continuing popularity of classics like Tiana and Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon is a sterling example of how the trope still has room to grow—while proving that some of the original ingredients can still deliver the goods.”
David Fear of Rolling Stone gave the film 3.5/5 stars and praised Tran and Awkwafina’s vocal performances, saying: “…while the action-set pieces and stand-offs and Raya–ders of the Lost Ark sequences are indeed thrilling, it’s the buddy-comedy aspect that actually makes the movie come alive.”
While praising the film’s world-building and attention to detail, Shirley Li of The Atlantic opined that subordinating the story to world building muddied the film’s message.
 Besides complimenting the film’s animation, the SFGate’s Julie Tremaine praised the film’s characterization of Tran’s character as a powerful woman and “regular person, with wits and heart, trying to make a difference” rather than a character endowed with special powers or one needing a prince to save her.
The film was criticized for the lack of Southeast Asian representation in the cast, as the film’s setting is set in a fictional land that represents Southeast Asia. Most of the cast are of East Asian heritage, with the exception of K. Tran, Butler, T. Tran, Wang and Harrison. A. Felicia Wade of DiscussingFilm pointed this out in her review, commenting on the disheartening lack of accurate representation in the vocal cast and the fact that it “misses the mark at its core.”

My take: I love the world that they built. The plot is a pretty basic Disassembled McGuffin, but the look of everything is wonderful. I love Tuk Tuk

Available on Disney +?: Yes. The film released on March 5, 2021, on Disney+ with Premier Access the same day as the theatrical release. Raya and the Last Dragon was available for purchase through Premier Access until May 4, 2021 (March 19 in Latin America) and is available for free to all subscribers as of April 23 in Latin America, and as of June 4 in other countries.

Next time: Luca